Mt. Vernon Register-News

March 7, 2014

Referendum seeks sales tax increase

By RICK HAYES rick.hayes@register-news.com
The Register-News

---- — Editor’s Note:

This is the fourth story featuring candidates and referendums in Jefferson County for the March 18 Primary Election. Today the Public Safety Tax referendum is highlighted.

MT. VERNON — A referendum question on the March 18 ballot will ask Jefferson County voters to support a sales tax for courthouse renovations.

The question does not specifically outline the tax increase of .25 percent will be used for courthouse renovations, although it’s implied through recommendations made by the Courthouse Renovations Committee and action taken by the Jefferson County Board.

The committee recommended accepting the original bid of $7.62 million from M360 to make courthouse renovations/repairs.

Specifically, the question is stated, “To pay for public safety purposes, shall Jefferson County be authorized to impose an increase on its share of local sales taxes by one-quarter of one percent? This would mean that a consumer would pay an additional 25 cents in sales tax for every $100 of tangible personal property bought at retail.”

If the voters approve the referendum, the first payment for the bond issuance would not be due until Dec. 1, 2015, according to Chairman Robert White. He also hinted during a December committee meeting the County Board in all likelihood would not sell bonds for the full amount, throwing out a figure of a little over $6 million.

The referendum question was approved on a 10-2 vote by the Jefferson County Board in December. Board members Jeremy Hall and Joey McDermott voted in opposition and John Keele was absent.

“What we’ve done is take a muddy situation and put in more water and dirt,” Hall said following the vote. “We originally we’re going to ask taxpayers for $7.6 million to repair the courthouse and now we have asked for a blank check with no statutory connection to how it will be spent. We as a board failed the residents in Jefferson County by being narrow-minded on the issue of courthouse repairs. Very early in this process we should have examined other alternatives, such as pay as you go, a high number of steps at a lower cost each or reassigning existing facilities.”

He added, “I voted against this measure for its lack of transparency with taxpayers. There is nothing in our action that assures residents we will stop spending when the need has vanished.”

McDermott questioned the timing of the referendum, given the controversial issues involved with the construction of a new Mt. Vernon Township High School. He added the sales tax increase may cripple the local economy as a result of travelers choosing other Southern Illinois cities to do their shopping.

White said courthouse renovations have been put on the back burner since 1983 due to county government dealing with jail issues.

“Absent any other revenue, this would be the option of last resort for any board, but the only area that would provide the money needed to undergo renovation for any system(s) failing. This is the only clear path I can see from where I sit to accomplish the needed renovation of the courthouse,” he stated.

White said if the referendum is approved, he is committed to advancing a board resolution that calls for continuous abatement of property taxes that funds the General Corporate levy.

“We’re giving it to the people and letting them decide. I don’t think the Board is wrong in doing that,” Courthouse Renovations Committee Chair Randy Edwards said.

Bob Shaw, who attended most if not all the Town Hall meetings hosted by the committee, said in a public session he was disappointed by the Board’s actions.

“The theme of the meetings was let’s do it in pay as you go way,” Shaw said. “Those affected the most can least afford it. I urge you to find a more responsible way of dealing with this. There are variations of ‘pay as you go’ that could be adopted.”

Jere Shaw has also been an outspoken opponent of the sales tax increase.

“The Board’s action to place the issue on the ballot sets no timeline for expiration on the tax. Without the action of a future board, the tax will remain with us in perpetuity. Without a date of expiration or sunset, I doubt seriously that a future board will rescind it,” he wrote in a letter to the editor on Jan. 15.

He noted in 2003 the County Board obligated the county for a $15 million debt to build a new jail that now sits two-thirds empty. With interest paid to bondholders for the debt, the total obligation will reach $29 million before the debt is paid. With the interest on the $7.6 million for courthouse renovations, the total cost could reach $12 million, Shaw warned. The two loans together, including principal and interest, will approach $41 million, he stated.